Editor’s note: Some names were changed upon request
One Saturday in 2019, I was headed into Manhattan with my friend to work our usual shift in Midtown. The mood was a bit melancholy because she had put in her two weeks. One stressful evening pushed her to do so.
In a packed subway car, she talked to me about how “off” she had been feeling. A baby next to us was laughing and smiling at her, and only her.
She told me her period was late.
Cait Lanahan is now a mother of two, full-spectrum doula, and lactation counselor based in NYC. But back in 2019, she was navigating her first pregnancy and leaving the service industry, which she had been in for almost 20 years.
“Knowing and feeling in my body that I couldn’t work those shifts, let alone be upright, was really scary,” she tells me. “There were even moments when I was in labor with both of my kids and I thought about bartending, because my back and my pelvic floor and my legs are all f*cked up from years and years and years of changing kegs and filling ice buckets and bending and being on my feet.”
Lanahan would go back to a few different service industry jobs over the course of her births and doula trainings. In the third trimester of her first pregnancy, she returned to Starbucks, where she started her service career at 16. She needed health insurance, and they offered it.
When her daughter was 5 days old, she got a text: “When can I put you back on the schedule?”
She never returned to Starbucks, and shortly after her daughter’s birth, the lockdown began. Even if she wanted to return to the hustle, she couldn’t.
The rush of a shift can be as intoxicating as the beverages being served. Grace, a server in NYC with over 20 years of experience and counting, worked during both of her pregnancies in a busy, “scene-y” downtown bar. “You wanted to be pulling your own weight, you wanted to be impressing management, you wanted to be selling things, you wanted your liquor sales to be high enough,” says Grace. She was afraid to tell her bosses she was pregnant; she didn’t want to be relegated to slower sections and miss out on bigger tips.
Sarah, a former server/bartender in Virginia, felt the opposite. She was working at a family-run restaurant and was excited to tell everyone. Another worker was pregnant, and they were both embraced and supported.
Until she left to give birth.
Postpartum, Sarah stayed out of work for three months, while her coworker returned after just 10 days. When Sarah began picking up shifts again, she was criticized constantly by one manager. “He told me that he didn’t think that I cared enough about the restaurant or that I didn’t have the work ethic they were looking for because [the other employee] came back to work much sooner than I did,” she says. This manager refused to put her on the schedule, and she never returned there.
She eventually found herself at a new restaurant. This place was high stress but high reward: great money, interesting menu, and high standards. If you made a mistake, you paid for it out of pocket.
At this job, she became pregnant with her second child. She was once again thrilled to share the news, but management reacted differently. “They told me they did not feel comfortable with me serving anymore and that I was going to be a hostess from then on,” she says, describing this move as “a demotion” as it significantly cut her pay. “They told me they didn’t want me to carry the food to the tables anymore because they thought I was gonna fall.”
Does the Law Provide Protection?
Pregnancy discrimination is described by Melinda Koster, partner at Sanford Heisler Sharp and co-chair of the firm’s Discrimination and Harassment Practice Group, as adverse actions against a pregnant employee based on assumptions or stereotypes made about pregnant individuals. She calls Sarah’s experience “an example of flat-out discrimination.”
The Pregnant Workers Fairness Act just passed Congress and will be in action beginning in June 2023. The federal law will give pregnant workers the right to reasonable accommodations as long as they don’t present undue hardship to their employers.
“Pregnancy can vary. Some employees may need bed rest; some employees may be able to be on their feet all day,” says Koster. “It requires an individualized consideration into the circumstances that the employee is experiencing.”
And what if a worker speaks out on their own, or another’s, behalf? “Those complaints generally are protected,” Koster says. “So if an employer does take negative action against them, that’s retaliation.” Although complaints about discrimination are protected, Koster is careful to not call such laws a “bullet-proof vest.”
“The hope is that the employer recognizes the situation as protected activity and doesn’t lash out,” she says. “It’s unfortunately all too common for employers to retaliate.”
Title VII prohibits retaliation against workers for complaining of pregnancy discrimination, so even if an employee suffers adverse actions, they have recourse to vindicate their rights.
So what should a worker do if they see discrimination happening in their workplace?
“I’d often recommend employees to keep a log of what’s going on … the idea is that they’re keeping notes of a running list of what they’re experiencing,” Koster advises. “Emailing to yourself can be helpful because then there is a timestamp of when it was written.” Keeping records of discrimination can be useful to an employee if they choose a legal route. Koster also recommends that a worker who suspects discrimination reach out to an attorney to better understand their rights.
Often, service workers are hesitant to advocate on behalf of their rights. Almost every individual I spoke to didn’t believe they had paid leave available to them.
Bridget, a bartender in NYC with over 20 years of experience, had to inform the owners of her bar that she was entitled to paid leave. The owner of her bar was entirely unaware of this, and Bridget had to gather all the forms and information herself. “But it’s on the signs in the basement that tell you all your labor rights,” she says.
Although Bridget advocated for and obtained some paid leave, she worked until she was eight months pregnant, taking the last month before she gave birth without any pay.
Bridget, like Lanahan, was pregnant during the onset of the pandemic. She was as careful as she could be but still dealt with customers fighting her on protocols.
Lanahan was back to bartending when she became pregnant with her second, but then Omicron surged. She began thinking, “OK, this is not safe for me anymore. I can’t be here.” Her partner was able to keep them afloat while she took leave, but it wasn’t easy.
Covid-19 wasn’t the only factor that made Lanahan feel like an outsider in the industry. “As a pregnant person, it’s already hard to be in a space with people consuming alcohol,” she says. “But when it’s people you are depending on to get you through that day, it’s harder.”
Grace describes working in such an alcohol-dense environment while pregnant as “alien.” She took water shots so customers wouldn’t think she was less “fun” and was no longer invited to post-shift drinks. But is that culture changing?
Emily is a bartender and server in Florida who is currently four months pregnant. “I have a great team of very supportive people,” she tells me. Her bar is growing its list of non-alcoholic offerings, which has allowed her not to miss out on social gatherings with coworkers. However, she does note that her place of work never had a big culture of drinking, making it a bit more hospitable than the work culture Grace described.
How Can the Service Industry Do Better?
In America, only 14 percent of workers have access to paid parental leave. One in four postpartum workers will return to work in less than 10 days, and the U.S. has the highest maternal mortality rates of any developed nation.
How can the service industry respond to such a deeply embedded issue? For one, ownership and management should not only be aware of the labor law posters they’re required to put up, but ready to follow them. Employees should also feel empowered to advocate for themselves and each other.
“‘Post’ means after, and ‘partum’ is Latin for delivery. So it literally just means ‘after delivery,’” says doula and mother Erica Livingston on “Tether Together,” a podcast by Birdsong Brooklyn. “Which is why it’s forever … that’s why the bounceback is such a big hot mess.” Livingston goes on to explain how the “bounceback” culture in the U.S. for postpartum individuals can be harmful both physically and mentally. She embraces the status of “postpartum” as a positive and forever title.
A postpartum individual has accomplished something huge; they deserve the rest their body needs to recover. “It’s okay to rest,” Lanahan says. “Rest is not some act of rebellion.”
Toward the end of my conversation with Grace, she expresses how much she both loves and hates the service industry. It’s a common refrain. This line of work attracts passionate people who pour a lot into it. Grace laughs, telling me how she spends all day “serving” her two young children before she goes into work to serve customers.
“It’s a real tossup about which people are less grateful,” she quips.